A few weeks ago, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman (D) from California’s 27th district which includes the San Fernando Valley, chatted with me about the new Iran divestment legislation recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Sherman, who is also Jewish, co-sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2007 that will enable Americans to more easily apply economic pressure on the Iranian regime through divesting from companies that do business with Iran. This past May, the bill was introduced by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA), Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Sherman, who is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, wrote an amendment to the bill that would protect state and local governments from litigation after they enact their own Iran divestment measures.
In 2000, Sherman was one of a number of U.S. officials helping with the effort to prevent 13 Jews from the city of Shiraz in Iran facing imminent death on trumped up charges of espionage. Eventually the Jews were not executed but imprisoned and eventually released. Since then Sherman has been active in Congress on a host of issues concerning Iran and even opposed the Clinton Administrationâs lifting of certain U.S. sanctions on rugs, caviar, and other goods imported from Iran.
Sherman discussed the opposition Iran divestment bills have faced from the White House who he said is more concerned with the profits of international companies than pressuring Iran to end its nuclear weapons program. The following is a portion of my interview with Sherman:
Why did you decide to co-sponsor this bill with regards to Iran divestment?
Just this week Congress has passed two bills dealing with Iran, weâre hoping its going to pass in the Senate. Both of them are opposed by the Bush administration, both of them got overwhelming votes in the House. The first is a bill introduced by a group of us, especially Chairman Frank of the Financial Services Committee and Chairman Lantos of the Foreign Relations Committee. What that bill is designed to do is allow and encourage government pension plans, private pension plans, and mutual funds to divest from companies that are doing anyone of the following three things with regard to Iran: (1) investing money in the oil sector, (2) lending money to the government or (3) selling munitions. The second bill is designed to strengthen the Iran Sanctions Act that was put forth by Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, myself, and others. As a provision in it to say that the foreign subsidiary of U.S. based multi-national corporations cannot do business in Iran. Itâs got a number of other provisions all designed with one purpose and that is to turn to multi-national corporations and urge them to stop doing business with the Iranian government. Our friends in Europe have been hostile to this because they seem much more concerned with the profits of European based multi-national corporations than with the effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program, I disagree.
Can you explain the purpose of a recent bill you wrote that passed in the House regarding Iran and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation?
Last week we passed another bill also on the same purpose that I wrote and went through my subcommittee, that deals with the âOverseas Private Investment Corporationâ which is an agency of the U.S. government that gets involved as a partner in foreign projects. And this bill was perhaps the toughest of all in that it says that if a multi-national is going to partner with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, then the top guy at the top corporation has to certify in writing that none of his/her companies is investing in the Iranian oil sector or lending money to the Iranian government. So the goal is to effect the behavior of multi-national corporations in an effort to effect the behavior of the Iranian government and to effect the thinking of the Iranian people. It is a complicated approach, it does not have the support of the Bush administration, but it does have the support of Congress.
So why has the Bush Administration been opposed to Iran divestment legislation that Congress has passed?
First and foremost the administration has never ever even thought of doing anything that would inconvenience even a single multi-national corporation. It takes courage to send American troops into battle looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and it takes courage to sign those letters to the widows and mothers and fathers. They may have that level of courage, but they do not have the courage to send a letter to a multi-national corporation telling them theyâre going to do something that the multi-national corporation does not like. Six years in office and nothing done that would inconvenience multi-national corporations. I will say this, we are not letting American companies sell advanced weapons systems to Iran. Thank god for small favors. The first rule of this administration is “never do anything that annoys the C.E.O. of a multi-national corporation”. The second thing that they have is that they are almost instinctively anti-Russian. Iâm not saying the Russians are right, or the Russians are not right. Iâm just saying that there is nothing more important than stopping Iranâs nuclear program and we at least ought to link what Russia does in the (U.N.) Security Council on Iran with what we do on a host of issues that are obscure and insignificant issues to Americans. And instead, the attitude of the State Department is that âwe want to fight Russia everywhere, we donât want to give in on anything, we will ask for Russiaâs help on Iran but we wonât give them anything, and they should do it because itâs a good ideaâ. So they keep sending another big wig to Moscow every few months to tell the Russians what a good idea it is to help us out and the Russians just shrug their shoulders. This is because every time we go to Moscow, we go empty-handed. Whether the United States takes this or that position on issues relevant to Russia, is so important to them and so unimportant to us, yet we wonât give in on anything. The result is that if you wonât inconvenience even one multi-national corporation a little bit and if you wonât moderate your view on an issue important to Russia, then what tools do you have left? A legislation that we have passed would inconvenience those corporations investing in terror and for that reason it is likely to be vetoed by the Bush Administration.
How do you respond to critics who that Iran divestment legislation is counter-productive in bringing about regime change in Iran and can possibly backfire with groups calling for Israel divestment?
First if we said nothing about Iran, the enemies of Israel would still be out there. Those who are trying to isolate Israel are found more among groups of Europeans than here in the United States. So good people to remain silent, will not silence the bad people.
Iranian opposition groups in U.S. and in Iran who opposed the regime, have repeatedly dismissed calls for attacks on Iran. Instead they have requested various forms of support from the U.S. to help them in their efforts to bring down that regime from within. What steps if any in Congress have been made to aid these groups?
The opposition may someday prevail. If they prevail at a time when Iran has nuclear weapons that could be most dangerous of all us because Ahmadenjiad may decide to go out with a bang. Bombing would solidify the support for the Iranian regime and might delay their nuclear program as little as three years. It has to remain an option first because the other options may fail, especially if youâre like the Bush administration that blocks doing anything. Technically just keeping force on the table strengthens the hands of those in the Iranian regime who say âwhy are we doing this nuclear program, itâs going to get bombed anyway?â So I think it remains reasonable to keep our present ambiguity on military actions. As to those who want to overthrow the regime, I think what America does will play very little role. I realize that there is this folklore in Iran, about Mosadeq and the Shah and this and that it all depend on upon America. If you look at the history of Iran you see that itâs mostly written by Iranians. Sometimes when there are exactly equally balanced forces then maybe the British or the Americans can tip the balance. But right now the forces are not so equally balanced, the regime remains in control of well more than 50 percent of the power. I certainly pray for the success of the democracy movement in Iran. At least the bombing would do something to the Iranian nuclear program, support for the democracy groups may not have effect for many many years. So we pray for them, we wish them well, but we cannot depend on them.
Alright, so how do you propose we stop the Iranian nuclear program?
We do so by convincing the Iranian elites and the Iranian people, by broadcasting in there on so many radio and television stations the message that if Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons, it will be economically an diplomatically isolated. The problem with that program is I canât lie that well in Farsi. That is to say right now the potential sanctions on Iran and its business partners are tiny. When you look at the possible non-lethal tools available to the U.S. government, economic and diplomatic tools, they are quite numerous and very powerful. If you look in the toolbox you see all the tools. The good news is that weâve got a lot of tools in the toolbox, the bad news is all the tools are still in the toolbox because we havenât had the political courage or will to use any of them.
Iâll give you a few examples. The World Bank has approved 1.3 billion dollars worth of loans to Iran, of which $800 million has yet to be disbursed. But hundreds of millions has been disbursed by (Paul) Wolfowitz, but who would have thought super-hawk from the Bush Administration would be signing checks to Tehran? Well he did. We currently import from Iran. I gave a letter to the President in December that talks about how we can cut a deal with Russia to isolate Iran and why that is so important. But the fact is this administration is unwilling to give the Russians a single Kopek, a single concession on the most irrelevant issues in order to secure Russiaâs support on the Iran issue. So we have many tools in the toolbox—diplomatic tools for Moscow and Beijing, economic tools at the World Bank and multi-national corporations and international lending institutions.
In you tenure in Congress you have been heavily involved in many issues concerning Iran. Aside from the fact that you have a substantial Iranian American constituency in your district, why have you continued to focus a lot of your efforts on Iran related issues?
I do have a large Iranian American constituency compared to my friend from Nebraska, but itâs still way less than one percent. Iâm not taking these positions in order to curry favor with the Iranian Americans in my district, most of whom are Jewish and would tend to support me if only I focused on Israel and the Palestinians—which I of course do. The reason I focus on Iran is first because of human rights and terrorism, but more recently and more intensely because Iran is the greatest threat to American national security and Israelâs national security. Their nuclear weapons program is not quite as advanced as North Koreaâs but North Korea is far less ambitious and therefore less dangerous. The greatest threat to Americaâs national security is nuclear weapons smuggled into the United States from Iran. That is why we have to stop their nuclear program and work for a democratic Iran.
Congressman Sherman, thank you for chatting with me.
The complete version of this interview was originally published by the Iranian Jewish Chronicle magazine: http://www.ijchronicle.com/article.php?idcat=35&idart=188